Loss of Bright Things
Air thickened in his throat, warm, tasting of papaya and old smoke. He’d logged on for flight details and now the word ‘dead’ stared from the screen, reminding him just how far he was from home. Michael wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. Back in England, the cold and damp would be creeping deep into February bones. This long, thin cafe was cramped and his computer was at the end furthest from the street. A rusty fan nailed to the wall creaked in half circles, the breeze missing his chair. On the top of the ancient white monitor was written, in swoops and curls: ‘Bali, island of magic and smiles.’ Underneath, different pen, different writing: ‘and hawkers’.
At the far end of the rectangular room, the street buzzed with evening noise; motorbikes zipping around each other and languid, curb-perched drivers calling to dinner-seeking tourists. Laughter, in the distance. Michael turned back to the screen.
Joe’s dead, mate. Sorry.
The simplicity stabbed at him, twisting a fork in his stomach. But what else to say? They’d been lads together, the three of them. Greg wasn’t one for burning words. Joe was always the one with urgent fire inside. On snuck out nights at the pier, getting stoned on hash nicked from Greg’s cousin, Joe would ask those Big Questions and give frantic monologues of spaghetti answers. Michael had thought once that Joe’s words were like the reflection of stars in the sea, both near and far, gleaming but only because they lay in darkness. Greg would finish it – a joke, a kick of salt water. Back to life, leave string ravelled, why care about the length of things? Let’s go try get served at the King’s Head.
Michael crossed off the message and reached for the warm dregs left in his water bottle. Still no reply from his sister. Some invites to London nights, a couple of worried messages from mum, who was always filled with visions of his injury or sickness. Inventive sometimes – ‘don’t eat any jellyfish’ had been last week’s warning. He wrote: Mum, still alive, chill. He then deleted it and wrote: Am alright. Just heard about Joe. Love you.
The heat was unbearable. Fuck facebook and fuck computers.
Outside, breathing was easier. He’d spent the day travelling and then thrown his rucksack in a high, dark room at a guesthouse as cheap as any other. It was good to walk bag-free. Just a pack of smokes in one pocket and his wallet in the other. He took out a cigarette and asked for a lighter from one of the moto drivers sat on the pavement – a small man with brown teeth. He gave him a wide gummy smile and said ‘Keep the light, I have more’, and pulled three out of his pocket to prove it.
‘Asked the right man, then,’ Michael said and was rewarded by a rough cackle, straight from the belly and into the eyes. Some people were born to laugh.
Michael walked on and drew the smoke deep down his throat, feeling it fill his lungs. Better than fresh air, sometimes. Shops and restaurants lit the faded red brick of the high pavement. Michael walked instead on the thin concrete road, following its soft winding toward the ocean and the black sand beach. A German couple had told him there was a good place to eat down on the promenade – tasty, local and cheap. He shook his head at more offers of accommodation and motos as he walked. Having swelled to thrive on tourism, the off-season left a hole in this town.
Word about the cheap and tasty restaurant had apparently spread. All the round, wooden tables were taken. He scanned for empty plates or groups getting ready to leave, but found none. He was turning to leave when a girl said, ‘You can sit here if you like’.
She gestured at the empty chair opposite her and with that movement he had a moment to take her in. She was long and slight, with fair wispy hair that floated down her back and around her face. About his age, he guessed. She wore a thin yellow dress and brown sandals.
‘Thanks,’ Michael said as he sat, ‘I heard the food here’s great.’ Leaning back in her chair, she scanned his face with frankness.
‘It is,’ she said. ‘What were you thinking about just now?’
‘What?’ She shook her head, brisk and impatient, her hair making a fluffed halo around her.
‘Walking down the road, what were you thinking about? If you don’t want to tell me, just say so.’
Michael felt anger at her directness bubble up inside his stomach and evaporate just as quickly. He looked back up the road from where he’d walked and then in the other direction towards the sea, at the stars waking up in the darkening sky.
‘I was thinking about an old friend who just killed himself,’ he told her, his gaze still on the stars. When he turned back, she nodded, just once.
‘I thought you looked sad,’ she said. He was glad she didn’t say she was sorry.
They talked about other things while they ate. When he asked, she told him that she was from a small town in New Zealand. Mostly, she asked her own questions, things like ‘what was the first thing you wanted to be as a kid?’ and ‘if you could be amazingly talented at anything, what would it be?’
So, Michael told her about his model plane collection, and how he used to set up cardboard boxes in the garden and pretend that he was flying his own. He told her that if he could, he would play the drums better than Dave Grohl.
‘Do you play drums at all?’ she asked, scooping curry onto her spoon.
Michael laughed. ‘No, my rhythm’s terrible. Learnt the piano for a while though.’
Her name was Sophie. She spoke fast and moved her hands all the while like she was trying to trace the outline of everything she said. When he asked her how long she’d been travelling, she told him about a family she’d met – two parents and a ten-year-old boy – who had been travelling since the boy was two years old.
‘He was the coolest kid ever. He was so much more… interested than kids back home. And cocky as anything – he’d talk to anyone and asked questions all the time, about where they were from and what they were doing.’
‘He doesn’t go to school then?’ Michael asked. She shrugged. ‘He already speaks four languages and fixes engines, so I’m guessing he’ll be alright.’
Michael talked about the couple he’d hung out with for a week in Australia. About how they’d been travelling together for years, making and selling jewellery made of shells and netted rope. Both leathered and small, like walnuts, Michael had thought they looked like brother and sister.
‘They were cool – really cool, but also a bit crazy somehow. Rather serious about it all. I guess once you’ve been travelling that long, it’s not fun anymore, it’s just everyday life. I don’t know if I could do it really, not forever – I want to settle down somewhere. Eventually.’
‘I’ll never settle down’ Sophie said.
Michael wondered at the curious way she said it, sad and questioning, but he didn’t ask why. People often said things like that. Sometimes they even believed it.
As their plates were cleared, she said, ‘Tell me about your friend,’ as if they’d never left that discussion.
Michael felt a fist close tight in his chest. ‘His name was Joe,’ he told her. ‘He used to be my best mate, back in secondary school.’
‘That’s high school, right?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. After a pause: ‘He jumped off a cliff. Devil’s Peak.’
‘That’s the name of the cliff?’
Michael nodded. ‘We used to go there after school and drink beers.’ They let the silence rest until the bill came.
Leaving the restaurant, they turned right and walked towards the sea, past the town’s landmark dolphin statue to sit on the small concrete steps leading to the beach. The night was illuminated and the water stretched far into a sepia horizon. Behind them, groups of locals sat on the low wall that divided sand from promenade. A couple walked where the water stroked the sand, arms interlaced around shoulders and waist. Michael lit a cigarette and offered Sophie the pack. She pulled a menthol from her own pack with a shrug, a smile, and leant in to light it with his flame. They breathed deeply, in unison, and blew grey clouds out into the night air.
‘Pulls you in, this ocean,’ she said. ‘Calmest piece of sea I’ve ever seen. If there was ever water I wanted to just walk straight into and never stop, this is it.’
‘Did you see the dolphins?’ Michael asked. That was the big pull for this northern town – in the south were the parties, white beaches and good surf, Ubud had yoga and fashion and food. Lovina had dolphins.
‘Yeah. They were amazing, though the whole thing is kind of ridiculous– all these silly humans chasing after them in big loud boats. Everybody hiding behind their cameras as soon as we could actually see them.’
‘Do you think they mind?’
‘No. I think they come to play. I reckon they find it funny. They wouldn’t come back if they didn’t want to.’ He nodded.
‘I might go tomorrow,’ he said.
They spoke for hours. As the conversation expanded, he realised that she soon skipped past any topic she felt to be trivial. Behind her busy hands and quick ideas there was intensity – a careful seriousness. They bought beers from a shop that also sold dolphin bottle openers and seaweed-flavoured crisps and they drank them slowly back by the water. They moved from the steps to meander down the dark beach, tracing toe patterns in a patch of phosphorescent sand and coming to rest on an old log, washed high up the shore. Michael noticed a brown, round mole on her pale wrist as it rested against her leg.
‘Have you been to any of the waterfalls round here?’ She asked him. He shook his head, no.
‘Well there’s one – it’s kind of a secret only locals know about. I went there a few days ago and it’s beautiful. Do you want to go?’
‘Tomorrow?’ Michael asked.
She grinned. ‘No, now.’